Editor’s note: Special thanks to Springfield native Tara Burghart for this wonderfully detailed guide to the 2012 Illinois State Fair. Tara is the founder of Go West Young Mom, a wonderful site for moms and families in Chicago’s Fox Valley suburbs.
By Tara Burghart
Where can you find country star Miranda Lambert, a 130-foot-long banana-yellow slide and some of the best French fries you’ve ever tasted? Why at the 2012 Illinois State Fair, of course! The State Fair runs from Thursday, Aug. 9 (preview day) through Sunday, Aug. 19, at the fairgrounds in Springfield, about a 90-minute drive from Champaign-Urbana. If you want to extend your trip a bit, check out this guide to a family-friendly Springfield getaway.
As a Springfield native and devoted fair-goer, I can assure you that any day is a good day for the fair. Cooler days are better, though, and if you can manage to visit on a weekday, you’ll find it to be less crowded.
Make sure to take a good look at the schedule of events for the day of your visit and also to surf around the State Fair’s website, especially the tabs called “Rides & Attractions” and “Concerts & Entertainment.”
There are all sorts of fun, only-at-a-fair events, such as the High Dive Show, a sheep shearing contest, a diaper derby and a contest for the longest ponytail. But you’ll need to do a bit of scheduling to be at the right place at the right time. Don’t worry: This isn’t Disney World. It doesn’t take that long to get from one end of the fair to another, but planning ahead — and enjoying the fair in zones before moving onto the next area — will make for a happier family. Here’s a link to a printable fairgrounds map that will help you get orientated before you even arrive.
THE CAN’T MISS ATTRACTIONS:
*The Big Picture: If you want to get a nice overview of the fair, you can hop on a tractor-pulled tram through the streets or on the “Sky Glide” overhead. These are great options at the beginning of your stay or when you just need to rest your tootsies.
*The Dairy Building: This is where the famous Butter Cow resides during the fair, inside a refrigerated class case. It takes about 500 pounds of unsalted butter to sculpt the cow, which has been a tradition since the 1920s. You can also buy ice cream cones in the Dairy Building, as well as delicious cream puffs.
*Milk a Cow: Your kids can milk a cow in the 25/Q Series Barn from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day and then get a coupon for a free bottle of milk. My daughter loved this last year.
* Farmer’s Little Helpers and the Kids Ag-tivity Tent: This is a free, interactive area for children, where kids can “raise” farm animals, tend to crops, take their harvest to market and earn money to turn in at the store. At the tend, children can ride toy tractors, watch baby chicks, play games and dig through containers with corn and soybeans. I think my then nearly 3-year-old daughter liked this spot as much as anything last year.
*Fair Food: You just have to eat French fries from Culler’s French Fry stands. In the past, they’ve had two locations — on the east side of Grandstand Avenue and on the west side of Main Street, in front of Exposition Hall. Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you can’t find one. The fries are just delicious, served piping hot, in a paper cone. They’re best, in my opinion, with a healthy sprinkle of salt and a dousing of vinegar. Otherwise, I’ll leave the choice of your fair food up to you. But note that if you’re looking for a bit more “upscale” experience, some of the better food vendors have their own seating areas.Ethnic Village, near the main gate, also offers surprisingly tasty servings of Cuban, Filipino, Greek, Jamaican and Cajun cuisine.
*The Illinois Fire Museum and Services Tent: Here your kids can climb on a fire engine, dress up in firefighter gear, check out antique fire service memorabilia and practice their skills with a working fire extinguisher. It’s located at Main and Central and open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
*Agrarian Life: Make sure to wander around the barns, allowing your children to see the horses, cows, sheep and pigs up close. When I was young, I was certainly intrigued by the animals — but even more so by the farm kids who traveled to the fair to show their animals in the livestock shows. Some of them slept in the barns on cots just feet from their animals, and I think many still do.
*Midway Rides: The Midway is the carnival part of the fair, full of spinning rides and crane games and aimless teenagers. Honestly, I could take it or leave it — but maybe that’s because my mom scared me into thinking these rides were just going to collapse at ANY MINUTE. (I think she was just trying to save money.) Adventure Village has rides for young kids and is located near the main gate, by the Giant Slide, a 40-foot-tall, 130-foot-long yellow fixture since 1968. The Giant Slide, by the way, is something you should consider riding down together as a family, if your kids are big enough. It has the potential to be a silly, sweet memory for all of you.
WHERE TO TAKE A BREAK:
When you do look at the schedule and see what catches your eye, try to plan some times to get out of the sun and sit down.
* The Illinois Building/Senior Center can be a good spot to plan a rest, since it is air conditioned and has a theater where gymnastics teams, bands, choirs and dance studios perform. This building is also where the Illinois State Beekeepers Association sells small cups of delicious honey ice cream — made from honey from Illinois beehives — and exhibits an actual beehive.
* Another fun, restful activity you can do is watch harness racing from the shade of the Grandstand. (Free to get in, although you can bet on the races.)
* Kids Korner probably won’t allow for much sitting down, but it will likely make your kids happy. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily inside the Emmerson Building’s south wing. The entertainment here includes face painting, a mural your kids can color on, a play area for tots, a puppet show, a magic show, a storyteller, marionettes, a clown and various musical acts. This is also a great place to change your child’s diaper – there are a number of changing tables. Kids Korner also has a couple of of spots blocked off with screens, furnished with a glider, for breastfeeding moms.
* If you’re looking for a restroom, the nicest ones historically at the fair are located in the Exhibition Building, which otherwise is mostly filled with lots of cooking and cleaning supplies for sale, the kind you see advertised on late-night infomercials.
* There are 12 free entertainment stages throughout the fair, although several of them are located in beer tents. The Grandstand will feature entertainment each night, too, but the Grandstand concerts require tickets ranging in price from $20 to $45. Probably the “hottest” act this year is Miranda Lambert with Pistol Annies on Saturday, Aug. 18. Other Grandstand acts include Demi Lovato with Hot Chelle Rae on Saturday, Aug. 11; Train with Mat Kearney and Andy Grammer on Wednesday, Aug. 15; Cheap Trick with Night Ranger, Blue Oyster Cult and the Georgia Satellites on Friday, Aug. 17 and the Steve Miller Band on Sunday, Aug. 19.
ADMISSION & PARKING:
The admission charge at the gate is $7 for adults 13 and older and $3 for children ages 5 through 12, as well as seniors 60 and older. Kids under 5 get in free. Veterans with ID and their families get in free on Aug. 12. The last day of the fair on Aug. 19 is Family Day, when all admissions are $3. You can park on the fairgrounds for $7, or homeowners and businesses near the grounds turn their yards into private grassy parking lots. The nearer you are to a gate, the more you pay, of course. You likely won’t see cheaper than $5.